Experts are skeptical that Utah's social media "curfew" law will help children's mental health

New prohibitive laws in Utah will make social media slightly harder to access for young people

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published April 4, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

A young teenager on the computer late at night (Getty Images/Ben Welsh)
A young teenager on the computer late at night (Getty Images/Ben Welsh)

Amid an ongoing mental health crisis among youth, Utah became the first state to enact laws that will strictly limit how and when children are allowed to use social media.

Together, the two laws — collectively known as the Social Media Regulation Act — will prohibit those under the age of 18 from using social media between the hours of 10:30 PM and 6:30 AM; require an age verification for anyone in the state using social media, and parental consent for those under the age of 18; and give minors the right to sue big tech companies for specific harms caused by social media. Both of Utah's laws will take effect on March 1, 2024.

The link between youth mental health and social media use has been researched at length. Earlier last month, some school districts across the country, including in California, filed lawsuits against social media companies like YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok, claiming that the companies designed their products to target youth at the expense of their mental health.

"This bill is an overly protectionist stance insisting on governmental control over a complex crisis."

"There is hard science behind the claim that social media is fueling a mental health epidemic in school-age children," said Nancy Magee, superintendent for the Board of Education in San Mateo, California. "Every day, schools are dealing with the fallout, which includes distracted students, increased absences, more children diagnosed with ADHD, cyberbullying that carries into the classroom, and even physical damage to our San Mateo schools." Magee listed a TikTok vandalism challenge as one example.

Public health experts are concerned, too. In February, the United States Surgeon General warned that 13-year-olds should not be on social media. According to research published by the American Psychological Association, teens who cut social media use down by 50 percent for a few weeks saw improvement in how they felt about both their weight and appearance.

But will prohibitive laws like Utah's stop the mental health crisis? Some experts say yes — but many worry that a law like Utah's could do more harm than good.

"This bill is an overly protectionist stance insisting on governmental control over a complex crisis in an attempt to somehow 'fix' the alarming problem of rising depression and anxiety rates in our youth," Linda Charmaraman, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab, told Salon. "Studies have shown mixed results associating social media use with mental health outcomes — in cases where there is a statistical association, social media use often explains very little of why there are mental health difficulties."

As Charmaraman said, research is not entirely clear on the connection between mental health and social media use among young people. In 2020, researchers at the University of Texas found that not getting enough validation on social media caused a measurable increase in depression and anxiety. As researchers of the study said at the time, much of the research on youth mental health and social media use had indicated a correlation, but not necessarily a causation. Yet a study published in 2019 concluded that the amount of time spent on social media was not directly increasing anxiety or depression in teenagers.

"We spent eight years trying to really understand the relationship between time spent on social media and depression for developing teenagers," lead researcher Sarah Coyne said in a press release at the time. "If they increased their social media time, would it make them more depressed? Also, if they decreased their social media time, were they less depressed? The answer is no. We found that time spent on social media was not what was impacting anxiety or depression."

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There is likely more to the youth mental health crisis than social media use. But it seems to certainly play a role, and researchers know that children and teens are spending a lot of their time on social media. In 2018, a Pew Research Center survey of nearly 750 13- to 17-year-olds found that 45 percent are online almost constantly, and 97 percent use a social media platform — and that was before the pandemic.

"Basically, scientific studies have demonstrated that there is not one common culprit that leads to mental health challenges, but people often want to find something tangible to blame — it takes a village of parents, educators, peers, and practitioners, as well as policymakers and app designers to keep youth socially and emotionally thriving in their digital worlds,"  Charmaraman said. She noted that a law such as Utah's could, in certain circumstances, "even be detrimental to a young person's mental health due to the inability to connect with others" and feel a sense of belonging.

Charmaraman said that social media can be a "life-saving sanctuary" for teens who do not have a strong source of social support in real life, or are part of "stigmatized populations" — like LGBTQ.

Psychologist Dr. Carla Manly, author of "Joy From Fear" and who works with minors, said while Utah's laws are "heavy-handed," they could constitute a proactive approach that could yield positive results in youth mental health.

"Given the severity of the youth mental health crisis, we can look at any substantive information garnered by Utah's approach to create policies that protect our youth from the negative consequences of social media and support their overall mental health," Manly said. "Given that the brains of children and teens are highly susceptible to negative influences, it's no surprise that mental health is on the decline in our youth."

Psychologist Dr. Don Grant, National Advisor of Healthy Device Management at Newport Healthcare, told Salon he commends Utah for passing such laws.

"Even if just to accelerate the conversation surrounding possible risks of use," Grant said. "If nothing else, he [Governor Cox] has certainly forced the issue to be tested and seriously explored for best possible solutions, or even guardrails and stopgaps in favor of child online safety, health, and protection."

"There is increasingly strong evidence [that] social media is absolutely a leading contributing factor to the inarguable increase in mental health struggles among youth."

While an "abstinence" approach isn't the answer, Grant said, he endorses parents and caregivers to be the "guardians" of their child's social media use.

"Although there are some who still don't seem convinced, there is increasingly strong evidence and agreement among most experts that social media is absolutely a leading contributing factor to the extremely concerning, inarguable increase in mental health struggles among youth," Grant said. "I don't believe that any adult who has themselves engaged with social media for any significant amount of time could honestly doubt that, as adults themselves have reported experiencing dysregulation in response to their own social media engagement."

While the Utah law is the first in the nation to be so prohibitive of social media, it might not be the last. Other states are considering similar laws, including Arkansas, which is considering requiring an age verification to use social media platforms. In Connecticut, lawmakers have proposed a bill that would require parental consent.

"There are also several proposals and bills focused on social media currently under discussion by the U.S. Congress with more currently in development by politicians," Grant said. "Very importantly, it is worth noting that although our current Congress has certainly demonstrated partisan division on almost every issue, the phenomenon of their united agreement 'crossing the aisle' on the need for improvement of online safety for our kids suggests how critical this issue is."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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